From the Office of the People: Campus Update Following the Need for Student Organizing

Given the University’s response to recent police murders and the campus COVID-19 outbreak, student organizing centered in community is more necessary than ever.

By Noah Tesfaye

In early March, a Chicago Police Department (CPD) officer murdered a thirteen-year-old boy. Adam Toledo was a joyful child living in a community that cared for and loved him. He deserved the chance like all of us to grow as a teen and take on all of life’s turns. Justice for him would mean that he is here with his family today.

On April 15, Provost Ka Yee Lee sent out a generic email to the student body following the horrific footage of Toledo’s murder, a hypocritical move given the University’s position on policing. In the email, she directed students who may be going through mental health struggles to reach the dean-on-call, not through a specific number or special resource, but through the University of Chicago Police Department (UCPD)—through the police. But these mental health detriments are not happening in isolation—or rather, they are. Further social isolation for students on and off-campus due to the early April stay-at-home orders has left the student body in limbo. Additionally, the University has continued to refuse to offer any universal/opt-in pass-fail policies while we are still online. How can we reasonably expect students to perform at the same level as we grieve and continue to be overwhelmed by unforgiving academic demands? The answer: They can’t.

The Maroon editorial board, of which I am a part, has written in the past about how the abolition of the UCPD is necessary to build safer accountability systems centered around care. I have personally written about how the University has no system of accountability because it is not accountable to students. What Provost Lee’s hollow email reinforces is that student demands that the University act morally righteous have time and time again failed. It is not that organizing should be abandoned; in fact, in these pandemic conditions, our campus is ripe for the change that comes with successful student organizing. Strained mental health due to the pandemic and endless police murders are propelling students to take direct initiative of their well-being and success in spite of University policies that have substantial negative impacts on their lives and the lives of community members.

What remains unsurprising about Provost Lee’s email is that it stands in direct opposition to the reasons that Black and brown students in particular are feeling emotionally distressed following the recent police murders of Toledo, Ma’Khia Bryant, and Daunte Wright. Wright, a young Black man who was the same age as me, was killed by police, and now I am being asked to go through the police to reach mental health resources. As student and community abolitionist organizers have been telling us for years, and as historians and researchers have been supporting with data: Police officers should never be involved in any mental health situations, much less any other circumstance for that matter. UCPD shot UChicago student Charles Soji Thomas when he was going through a mental crisis in 2018. Given both the recent climate and the disturbing recent history with UCPD, it is irresponsible to ask students who are already statistically more likely to get stopped by UCPD to then go through the police to find help.

But the police murders are just one of many different reasons students are feeling mentally drained. Following a cluster of COVID-19 cases that stemmed from out-of-state travel and fraternity parties, the University extended its on-campus stay-at-home orders an additional five days after they discovered more clusters beyond the first collection of cases. For two weeks, students were required to stay in their dorms, save for walks, getting food, and getting tested. There was no library access, no house lounge space, and while the University has cleared the way for some mental health resources, classes continued to push on. Even prior to the recent stay-at-home mandate, the COVID-safe social opportunities provided by the University were sparse.

Frankly, I feel like I’m becoming a broken record. I feel as though I’m making the same claims and observations about how this University functions across different areas. When I wrote about the University’s inability to center student well-being, it was after experiencing one quarter in the year. Now that we’re approaching the middle of the final quarter, I not only stand by those observations but also feel as if my concerns have only increased in light of how the University has handled the pandemic since November. In a similar vein, for years, abolitionist organizers have written through several angles in this very paper about the University’s resistance to meeting their demands. How many different ways can I explain how horrible University urban renewal and policing practices are? How many different ways can I explain how the University’s racist past and present actions have material consequences for both students, but more importantly, community members?

Following the verdict in the Derek Chauvin case on April 20, Provost Lee wrote another email to the school community with the subject heading “Our Commitment to an Inclusive Community.” Beyond the politics of the verdict itself, in which the state execution of George Floyd was laid bare and this policing system sacrificed one of its own to proclaim it could ever grant “justice,” the University response to the recent events is to once again plug its student wellness resources without any substantive policy changes. There continues to be no school-wide academic relief and no willingness to have a truly open, public forum with radical community and student organizers. Given the despicable handling of Adam Toledo’s point-blank killing at the hands of CPD, along with the recent deaths of Ma’Khia Bryant and too many others at the hands of the police, the University’s position on policing and continued reliance on the UCPD is indicative of its complicity in the same deadly, anti-Black U.S. institution of violence.

We must continue to center our energies through student organizing. We’ve all seen the many different Instagram pages that have sprung up over the past year. By reaching students directly through social media amidst campus closures and remote learning, organizing has evolved to meet the pandemic. However nuanced student demands may be, what remains clear is that students have shown more urgency and desire to change the conditions of their education experience. But organizing online is nowhere near enough, and organizers planning Abolition May, along with other actions as things open up, is indicative of that. Student organizing must also continue to recognize the extractive and exploitative relationship that this institution has with residents in Hyde Park, Woodlawn, and the greater South Side. Materially, student organizing should be just as, if not more, focused on forging community relationships to help continue further divestment from the University. We as students must mobilize to meet our needs and to center community organizing. This is the only path forward.

Noah Tesfaye is a second-year in the College.